Whenever I attempt to explain to someone what I am doing in Israel, their first question is always, “What’s a kibbutz?”
A kibbutz is a kind of gated community. It’s a collective community based on a high level of social and economical sharing, equality, direct democracy and tight social relations. A member of a kibbutz is defined by their kibbutz, and most of their status as an individual outside the community becomes irrelevant.
I have been living on Kibbutz Holit for the past two weeks. It is a small kibbutz, and not a very wealthy one, with only 27 members. It is located in the desert, and in easy walking distance from the Gaza Strip border. In addition to the 27 members who live here, Holit is home to a group of foreign volunteers who have come to learn about and work on the kibbutz only for a short amount of time.
However, I am not here as a volunteer; I am here as a student, in a group of 28 teenagers from nine different countries, simply using Holit as an educational center for our own learning, as well as occasional learning about and through the kibbutz.
During my first two weeks here I didn’t have the opportunity to interact with any of the kibbutz members who were not directly involved in my program. We shared meals with the volunteers, but were curious about the members and their lifestyles, and wondered why we never had the opportunity to run into them and converse.
Then, finally, I was invited into the home of Shaul, a man in his mid-40s who is originally from Argentina but has been a member of Holit for 25 years or so. He didn’t have many questions to ask me, because he is familiar with the program that I am here for, but he encouraged me to ask him anything and everything that I could think to ask. Shaul came to Israel as a Zionist from Argentina, wanting to become a kibbutznik to help Israel progress.
When he first got here, Holit had was a much larger kibbutz with more members. When the first intifada happened, and the conflict with Gaza began and the rockets started to fly into the territory, most people fled. In that thread, most people can’t understand why we students have chosen this place, in the middle of the desert, an easy walking distance from Gaza, where rockets fly as they please, to be our educational center.
I asked Shaul why he and the other current members chose to stay here. “Here is where we have the intelligence to live without fear. Here is where we know what precautions we need to take and how to avoid being hurt. Here is where we know exactly what we are supposed to do when a threat comes towards us. Here we have learned how to protect ourselves, and here is where I feel the safest.”
Over the past two weeks I have been told that I am brave for deciding to come out here to Holit, to the desert, where I am easy walking distance from the Gaza boarder and under a sky where rockets could fall over my head any day. And maybe I am. But what I’ve realized is that living here isn’t about being brave. It’s about living life the way that you want to live it. It’s about growing and learning and teaching that community is strong. I’m here to live an experience for three months that everyone else here lives every day of their lives. If anything, they’re the brave ones. They’re the ones who aren’t going to let any force pull their community apart. I’m just here to watch.
Hillary Weinberger is a participant on Hashomer Hatzair’s Shnat Hachshara, one of Masa Israel’s 200 programs.